Gupta's Too Brand-y To Be Surgeon General

As both a journalist and one who writes about marketing, I think I'm qualified to give the final vote on whether Sanjay Gupta should be the next surgeon general. Why? Because he's both a journalist and a brand.

And because of the sort of brand that he is and because of his medical specialty, I shall wager that, while he might be a competent surgeon, he would be an incompetent, nay, dreadful surgeon general.

To explain my first point -- that his gravity as a brand would render him incapable of serving as surgeon general -- I'll go, as I always do, to particle physics. I know nothing about particle physics, by the way, but I play a physicist on TV. As I understand it, the universe may be full of invisible soup of things called the Higgs Boson, which actually sounds like a character in a Patrick O'Brien novel. Anyway, the Higgs is one of the things they're looking for at the Very Large Hadron Collider, which will destroy the world in the first quarter this year, as my psychic tells me, so I'm selling my stock and going to Las Vegas.



Where was I ... Right, Higgs. As marketing types know, one of the purposes of brand marketing is to give commodities like cars, cameras, condoms or even condominiums mass. A brand is only partly represented by physical products; much of the real "mass" is created by the invisible dark matter marketers work so hard to create.

From a marketing perspective, the weightless particle, Gupta, M.D., the guy whose day job is teaching people how to remove glioblastomas and fix trigeminal neuralgia and such, doesn't exist unless it is amplified, blow dried, given smiling lessons, and a personality for TV. His network, his handlers, his acting coach, his makeup person, his writers, his own savvy define the guy for millions of viewers.

The question is, really, how little mass is left when one removes the marketing from such a product as a TV personality? Brand building is, after all, the process of encumbering something with an identity it does not have, or taking a functional property it does have and embellishing it with an encumbering myth and weight: The Mac guy. Jetting on Jet Blue. Dr. Zizmor.

But the Surgeon General of the US of A has to be a something of a gadfly willing to make enemies. Companies have to battle the Surgeon General, or there's no point in having one. Is a marketing-encumbered product -- human or otherwise -- free to do, say or be what it wants? Nike is not free to make ads showing Nike shoes as footwear of choice for septuagenarian tricyclists in St. Pete, Florida. (Actually that's just the sort of thing Crispin Porter would do, come to think of it. But they aren't Nike's agency.) Coke is not free to tout the eponymous drink as both a beverage and a solvent, both of which are true, if my memory serves me.

And, as anyone knows who saw Gupta debate Michael Moore (whose own brand, as such, is gadfly), the Gupta product is not free to say, "Our healthcare system is effectively broken." The Gupta product must smile, look weighty, and argue statistical margins of error. Who is the real SGMD?

As a brain surgeon, he may be great with a laser knife, but it doesn't take a brain surgeon to see that he isn't working the internist trenches. He isn't dealing with 99% of American's ailments, worries, cuts, scrapes, hypochondrias, neuroses, psychoses, fears, and beliefs. He sees people who need to be prone, anesthetized and motionless as soon as possible.

What WE need is the family doctor, and not someone who plays one on TV. Someone with no brand identity at stake, free to do and say what he wants about smoking, obesity, and the garbage we watch, eat, drink, breath, and even believe.

2 comments about "Gupta's Too Brand-y To Be Surgeon General".
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  1. Cat Wagman from Working Words, Inc., January 9, 2009 at 12:25 p.m.

    Karl, I must humbly disagree.

    My mother, who is a retired neurologist, and who is not available to become the next Surgeon General, always impressed upon me the "in the trenches" training that she received as an Intern and Resident, along with the clinics and on-call consultations she did throughout her career. Just because a physician becomes a specialist in their field, let alone a spokesperson or a "brand," does not take away from that person's original desire to help people. I can't speak for Sanjay Gupta, but I have an invested interest in the Obama team that they have vetted his qualifications as well as his willingness to take up the standard of Surgeon General with the uncompromising commitment to improve and safeguard the health and well-being of ALL who live in the United States.

  2. Karl Greenberg from MediaPost, January 9, 2009 at 1 p.m.


    good point, and I have no doubt that Dr. Gupta is an excellent clinician who cares about his patients. I'm mostly concerned that he won't be willing, or perhaps even capable of getting away from all that he and others have done to confer upon him a certain brand iconography. I realize, as many have written, that such a presence and social grace could do a lot for the job, but I wonder if the man is prepared to sacrifice his popularity for his convictions, such as they are.

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